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Duluth project gathers steam in House bonding proposal

An $800 million bonding bill wending its way through the Minnesota House of Representatives includes a proposed $21 million in funding to replace a faltering steam heat system in downtown Duluth with a new, more efficient closed-loop network of p...

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State Rep. Paul Torkelson of Hanska, chairman of the Minnesota House committee that recommends funding for public works projects, runs a committee meeting Wednesday in St. Paul. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

An $800 million bonding bill wending its way through the Minnesota House of Representatives includes a proposed $21 million in funding to replace a faltering steam heat system in downtown Duluth with a new, more efficient closed-loop network of pipes carrying hot water.

If approved, the project would coincide with the reconstruction of Superior Street.

Mayor Emily Larson noted that both she and the City Council have identified the project as Duluth’s top legislative priority, explaining that the timing of the work is critical. That’s why she was back in St. Paul again Wednesday continuing to make the case for it, as the legislative session nears an end.

“I feel really good about where we’re at. I know this project well, and time is of the essence. But I also know a lot is going to happen in the next 48 hours,” Larson said.

Full funding for the steam plant also was included in Gov. Mark Dayton’s $1.4 billion bonding proposal. But earlier this month a $1.5 billion Senate bonding bill, which has yet to win approval, omitted funding for the project.

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The Minnesota Legislature is slated to adjourn Monday, and District 7A Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, said the Republican-controlled House will need to work across the aisle to get a bonding bill approved. The public works bill gained no Democratic votes when it passed out of two GOP-controlled committees Wednesday.

“They know they need Democrats to vote for it, because they need a supermajority, and they have some of their own members who won’t support any bonding bill,” she said. “So they’ll probably have to throw more projects in to get more votes on our side.”

District 7B Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, agreed with Schultz’s prediction that the bonding bill will grow as House leadership attempts to garner more support from his party.

“It can only get larger. And I still hope it gets larger, because there are still some other projects I’d like to see in there,” he said.

Simonson noted that bonding requests to fund improvements to the Lake Superior Zoo and repairs to Glensheen Mansion, as well as build the Essentia Health Regional Wellness Center in Hermantown, are not included in the bill.

“That’s not to say it’s not a good package still, but it could potentially get better yet,” he said.

Schultz said she wouldn’t be surprised to see the House bonding bill grow considerably.

“My guess is that it will grow to at least $1 billion if they need more DFL votes,” she said.

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Rep. Paul Torkelson, chairman of the Minnesota House committee that recommends funding for public works projects, said requests for bonding money topped $5 billion. Too often, he said, people seek bonding money when they should look elsewhere.

"We continue to grow the pile of projects and the scope of the bonding bill," he said. "We have to have a reasonable figure of bonding. We can't fund everything."

The proposed bill would fulfill some other key bonding requests in the Northland. It includes more than $21 million in funding for a new Chemistry and Advanced Materials Science Building at the University of Minnesota Duluth and $12.7 million to help clean up polluted sections of the St. Louis River in Duluth.

“I think this is the best bonding bill that Duluth has ever seen, because usually if Duluth gets a project, UMD doesn’t get a project, because they base it on geographic location,” said Schultz, who contends each of the projects stands on its own merits.

The House bonding bill does not contain funding for proposed runway improvements at Duluth International Airport, but Schultz said she expects the project will be included in a House transportation bill that’s still taking shape.  

Simonson takes encouragement from the proposed House bonding bill.

“For the last seven to 10 days, it’s kind of been positioning and working up to this point. And I just feel good about where we are on a Wednesday, looking into the weekend as we approach the finish line,” he said.

Simonson praised Mayor Larson and other city representatives for making a strong case in support of the steam plant conversion.

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“I don’t think it’s any secret that the city of Duluth’s number one priority is the steam plant. They’ve done an incredible job advocating for that. But now, as we get into the final days of the session, the advocates and lobbyists will play less of a role. This is where the actual individual legislators play more of a role, because votes are cast by legislators, not advocates or lobbyists. As good a job as they have all done advocating for their projects, now it comes down to deals between legislators,” he said.

Larson, who took office in January, has not yet hired a policy director, and has spent considerable time in St. Paul to personally usher the city’s bonding requests forward.

“I really wanted to be the one to shape these relationships my first year. With all the legislators and the governor and the lieutenant governor, it is helpful to have staff who can do things, but they really need to see you, too. Especially this first year, it’s very important to lay a foundation and demonstrate the work ethic to see these projects through,” Larson said.

If the House passes a bonding bill, it then will need to negotiate a compromise with the Senate and Dayton.

“These are very difficult decisions that senators and representatives and the governor’s office have to make - with over $5 billion in requests, there’s going to be a lot of stuff that’s included and a lot of stuff that isn’t,” Larson said.

“You have to be ready. You have to demonstrate a real readiness to put these dollars to work,” she said.

As the session draws to a close, Simonson said it’s hard to predict what type of bonding, tax and transportation bills will ultimately emerge.

“I do think there’s a will amongst both parties that we need to get some good policy done, but we’ll see how that plays out,” he said.

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Minnesota State Rep. Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake, right, looks over a public works funding bill Wednesday. With him is Rep. Greg Davids of Preston. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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